Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with John Laws, 2SM
21 October 2011
JOHN LAWS: A great deal of controversy and, in some quarters, fear surrounds the issue of coal seam gas. There seems to be no shortage of misinformation about the issue but hopefully we can put some of the myths to rest.
The man who joins me on the program this morning is Tony Burke. He's been in politics since 2004 but listen to what he's done over that time. He's been the Minister for Agriculture, been the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry, the Minister for Sustainable Population and now, by way of keeping himself busy, he's the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in the Gillard Labor Government. And Tony Burke joins me now.
Thank you very much for coming to see us Tony Burke. You've got a hell of a title there, haven't you?
TONY BURKE: Yeah. I'm wondering, John, if they ought to put it in paragraphs. There's a bit there.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah, there sure is a bit there. You've been given an awful lot of responsibility for something on which our lives depend, and that's water. It's also a hot political issue at the moment, isn't it?
TONY BURKE: Yeah. I had a terrific meeting yesterday with the leaders of the irrigation industry from around the Basin and - look, there's no quick fix. There's no easy answers on it. But I think there's a fair determination that we want to make sure whatever water's pulled out is used for good quality food production and that we keep enough water in the rivers to keep them healthy.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah. I've had countless calls about coal seam gas. Can you tell me in plain English what it is and why we need to get it out?
TONY BURKE: Okay. Deep down under the ground there are these massive coal seam cylinders. They've got a heap of water in them. And what happens when coal seam gas is extracted is they pull the water out...
JOHN LAWS: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: ...and they get the gas out at the same time. And then...
JOHN LAWS: But gas and water don't mix, do they?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, the gas is caught up within the coal as well. So you remove the water as you're getting the gas out and then sometimes, not always, it's about five to ten percent, they then do this fracking process, which is where they fire a jet of mainly water, sand and salt - but there are some chemicals in there as well, into the sides of the seam, into the sides of the coal, to break open the coal and get a little bit of extra gas out. That's about five to ten per cent comes out through the fracking.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. The - you say that there are chemicals there. What are those chemicals? Are they toxic?
TONY BURKE: Salt's the main one. The dangerous - they call them BTEX chemicals...
JOHN LAWS: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: Some people would have seen that movie, GasLands, that are used in the United States. Those chemicals are banned in Australia. So what's happened overseas isn't identical here. That's not to say there's not some big issues around it here. There are. But the particular chemicals, the BTEX chemicals, that have caused a lot of concern are banned in New South Wales and Queensland.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. So if you saw GasLands, or whatever it was called, it was a propaganda film, wasn't it?
TONY BURKE: It's pretty full on. The main issues here, which are real issues for people to work through, are actually the water ones. So I don't want to pretend because GasLands went so hard on a particular angle that there's not reason for concern. These are issues where you've got to tread carefully. And the water issues, I think, are the main ones that we need to make sure we get right.
JOHN LAWS: Is there a possibility that the water could be polluted?
TONY BURKE: The question is whether or not the - I mean, these seams, when I talk about them, these are going hundreds and hundreds of metres down into the ground...
JOHN LAWS: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: ...and there's a question as to whether they're watertight or whether they're porous. Now, if they're watertight there's not a problem, because whatever's in there stays there. If they're connected to the water table, that's when you've got your issues. You've got your issues about making sure that chemicals don't go out into the water table, but also making sure, if you've just ripped a whole lot of water out, that you don't get the groundwater backfilling. Because if you do that, then you fundamentally change what farmers are relying on with the water table and the Great Artesian Basin that stretches the whole way...
JOHN LAWS: Oh yeah.
TONY BURKE: ...to the south.
JOHN LAWS: Well, is there any possibility that the Artesian Basin could be compromised?
TONY BURKE: If they're connected and if you've got the wrong conditions, the answer's yes.
JOHN LAWS: It would seem to me that there are a lot of ifs surrounding this. I mean, if there are ifs there, shouldn't it just be left alone?
TONY BURKE: Well that's why I've got them testing every aquifer for the ones that have gone through me. Not everything's gone past me and - but the ones in Queensland - some of the ones in Queensland have. And my view is you test every single aquifer. If there's no connection then there's not the challenge for the water table. But if there is, then the companies have to be willing to fully re-inject or re-pressurise because we're not going to allow a situation where we see the water going backwards across the Great Artesian Basin.
JOHN LAWS: And that would happen?
TONY BURKE: Oh, yeah. It'd happen slowly. But it must not happen. And, you know, the test is, is there a connection? And originally the advice that came - the companies were saying to me, oh no, don't need to worry, there's no connections there. And Geoscience Australia was saying, well, there could be occasions where there are. And so the rules for the ones that have gone past me that I've put in place are, you have to test every single time. And if there's a connection, if you want to rip the water out, you've got to put it back in.
JOHN LAWS: The Great Artesian Basin is massive, isn't it? I mean, it covers parts of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia...
TONY BURKE: That's right.
JOHN LAWS: ...the Territory.
TONY BURKE: That's right. With water moving unbelievably slowly through it. So, if you compromise it and you start having backfilling and the water going in the wrong direction, you've made a decision that will - would affect the water table for generations. That's why I'm not comfortable taking risks with it.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah. It's water that is used by the farmers, though, isn't it?
TONY BURKE: Oh, that's right.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: That's right.
JOHN LAWS: So don't they have an effect on it? Or don't they take enough?
TONY BURKE: One of the things when farmers use the water, is the water that they're using they'll be putting back into the ground in different places. So, you know, it affects their water table but it's not like it's full on extraction. And because the water's moving so slowly - you have your agriculture. It doesn't actually wreck the system. But we're talking massive volumes with coal seam gas and that's why the concept of it being connected is so fundamental.
JOHN LAWS: The bore water that I remember very, very clearly when I was in the bush in Queensland stank unbelievably and was absolutely undrinkable. You couldn't have a bath in it. So what's it used for?
TONY BURKE: Oh, it's - best way to describe it, it's like looking at a house. No one lives in the foundation but you need to have it. And this is your foundation for your water table. So, in terms of water quality, what's coming out of these aquifers, you're going to want to drink it.
JOHN LAWS: No. Horrible.
TONY BURKE: But if it's got a connection to the Great Artesian Basin, then it's the foundation for your water table and, you know, it doesn't have to be your best quality one to not mean that you get some big knock on impacts if you wreck it.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah. A lot of farmers are concerned about what CSG means to their property and to their water. What protections have you got in place, if any?
TONY BURKE: The protections that come to me as the Environment and Water Minister are the ones that I've gone through.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: Making sure that we get those water table issues right. There's an added issue that the states are in charge of, which is an issue that a lot of farmers are making noise about, understandably, which is wanting to make sure that they've got a say in what happens on their land. And that's one I can't pretend as Environment Minister to be in charge of it, but I don't want to have a discussion about coal seam gas and not acknowledge that that's one of the big issues that's concerning communities.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. But as the situation is now, is it not true that people can walk on to the farmers' land uninvited, drill a hole uninvited?
TONY BURKE: That's right. When states give land title, they give it to the land not to what's below it and then if states go ahead and issue mineral licences for what's underneath the ground, then exactly what you've described can be what people experience.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. And what sort of compensation are those farmers going to be given?
TONY BURKE: That get's negotiated. It's done through state jurisdictions. It doesn't come past my desk, that one, and it's been that way for a century. But you end up with some people being quite happy with the financial way it's resolved. You get some people who don't really care about the money. They don't want it to happen at all and can be quite frustrated through it.
JOHN LAWS: Tell me, why don't they want it to happen at all? Does the equipment take up a lot of room? Does it destroy the land, the grazing land?
TONY BURKE: It's not like if you do an open cut coal mine. You do an open cut coal mine...
JOHN LAWS: Yeah, well that's a hell of a mess.
TONY BURKE: ...effectively you've ripped it apart.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: So the wells are big areas but then you've got to have connecting roads that go between them. So it's not like the farmland gets wiped out, but it's a significant impact. It's a significant scar across it.
JOHN LAWS: Can the farmer refuse?
TONY BURKE: It's under state law and under most jurisdictions, from what I've seen, it's the same as all mining rights. The rules normally are, no.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah. But if the farmer decides he didn't want people just coming on to his land, doesn't he have the right to say, sorry, you can't come in?
TONY BURKE: It'll depend on your state rules. Some of the mining companies say that they only want to negotiate with farmers and they want to be able to do it in a cooperative way. And so you do find examples of it working as most people think it should. But on the land ownership issue, if a state government decides that they're going to give a straight out entitlement for what's under the ground, then they've made that call.
JOHN LAWS: Tony Windsor, the independent MP, as you know, has introduced legislation that he hopes will restrict exploration. Is that appropriate?
TONY BURKE: That might be a way of dealing with it. I've seen Tony's bill and I've had a quick conversation with him about it. As it currently is it would affect almost anything that involves digging and it goes, I think, broader than Tony would need it to go. We're still having conversations to see if there's a constructive way of dealing with it. So, the bill in its current form does a whole lot more than what we've been talking about today and we've got some challenges with that. But we haven't closed the door on trying to find a way through.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. Do you dare to make a comment on the future of Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd?
TONY BURKE: Look, I think her...
JOHN LAWS: You don't.
TONY BURKE: No, no. I support the Prime Minister, as you know. And I actually think, in terms of the challenges that we've got in front of Australia at the moment, we are the right team to be dealing with them. I mean, one of the things - and you've been interviewing government leaders from both sides for quite a while now - and one of the things that I reckon Labor Governments do best is look after the country at a time when there's a big transition going on. And that's what happened in the Hawke-Keating years. It's what's happening now.
The transition at the moment, where we've got some parts of the country absolutely booming and other parts of the country, which not only are not doing as well, but are feeling some pain because of the boom. They're having trouble finding workers. They're dealing with the higher dollar. Those sorts of transitions of making sure that we'll make sure the economy grows, but we'll also make sure we're not leaving people behind on the way through. I reckon they're the moments when Labor Governments have traditionally come to the fore. And when I look at the way Julia Gillard is leading the place at the moment, I've actually got a good deal of hope as to how the next two years is going to transpire.
JOHN LAWS: Well, I hope that the Labor Government looks after the people better than they look after each other, because they certainly did a job on Kevin Rudd. So I hope you look after the people but - it's a pretty tough party the Labor Party. I mean, you don't take too many prisoners, do you?
TONY BURKE: Oh, we're resilient and we're determined. And we're there because there's changes that we believe are the right thing to do. You've never found a Labor Government or a Labor Opposition that's been accused of saying no to everything. When we're in opposition we've been there with ideas as to how we want to reform the nation. At the moment we're in government and we've got an opportunity to do that. That's my focus and I reckon that's what people reckon we should be doing.
JOHN LAWS: Yeah. Obviously you're having a whack at Tony Abbott there because he says no to many things. But he doesn't say no to everything.
TONY BURKE: Oh, it's not too far off. It's not too far off. And it's interesting the corner that he's taken himself to as a result of that as well. I mean, for the different packages he's said no to, it now does mean that he has committed to fill his seventy billion dollar hole in a number of ways, some of which do involve cuts to the pension, cuts to superannuation, cuts to family payments, increases on taxes. It's not a bad cocktail. There's not many Australians you miss when you're already promising that much this far out.
JOHN LAWS: That's a legitimate point. Is he a good Opposition Leader though?
TONY BURKE: Oh, if your job is purely to throw rocks at the government, then...
JOHN LAWS: Well, isn't that his fault?
TONY BURKE: ...then he's faultless.
JOHN LAWS: Isn't that your job when you're in opposition?
TONY BURKE: No. No. Your job is also to do the right thing by the national interest. That's also your job. And there's been plenty of times when - I remember people like Kim Beazley saying this is not the path that we would choose if we were in government, but national interest, a decision has to be made. We're not going to stand in the way. And he'd often cop some criticism...
JOHN LAWS: Yeah, he did.
TONY BURKE: ...for doing things like that.
JOHN LAWS: He did.
TONY BURKE: Kevin Rudd copped criticism for doing too much of me-tooism, was a criticism. But when you do those things, you're actually saying, at the moment we're not in government but the national interest, whether we're in government or opposition, will not be compromised. And I actually think if Tony Abbott did some of that, he'd get some credit for it. But I don't think he's about to take my strategic advice.
JOHN LAWS: Well you don't want him to get any credit, do you?
TONY BURKE: You get involved because you want the right thing to happen by the country.
JOHN LAWS: Well that's what I...
TONY BURKE: And saying no to everything, there's moments where you've got to just put your political advantage to one side. And most of us have done that at different times.
JOHN LAWS: Tony Burke, thank you very much for your time. It was good to talk to you. I enjoyed it and I'm sure we'll get to talk again.
TONY BURKE: I hope so. Thanks, John.
JOHN LAWS: Okay. Tony Burke, who's the Minister for everything.
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